MANILA, Philippines?"Don?t wear anything red or be seen in public carrying red roses or heart-shaped balloons and other items symbolizing Valentine's Day."
The warning came from the Riyadh-based overseas Filipino workers' group Migrante-Middle East (M-ME) as it reminded the 1.2 million-plus OFWs in Saudi Arabia not to celebrate the day of lovers openly.
"Also, they should not be seen blowing kisses, if not kissing their friends or workmates in public, or they'll be in big trouble," John Leonard Monterona, M-ME regional coordinator, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Monday.
Valentine's Day is "outlawed here due to a fatwa against pagan holidays," said Monterona.
"The very conservative Commission for the Promotion of Virtues and Prevention of Vices (also known as the religious police) strictly enforces the prohibition on the celebration of what they regard as a Western practice. Like many Arab Muslims, they consider Valentine's Day celebrations alien and un-Islamic," he explained.
In an e-mail, Monterona said violators of the ban would face jail terms of six months to one year.
"Add to that the lashes and possible deportation after serving their prison term," he noted. That is why, "our ?kababayans? (compatriots) need to be extra careful and very discreet."
"Aside from having dinner at their favorite restaurants, many OFW couples here exchange Valentine's Day gifts like perfumes, chocolates and even pieces of jewelry....Others simply send V-Day greetings by e-mail or text messages," he said.
Every year, the Saudi religious police clamp down on shops, asking them to remove red roses and gifts wrapped in red or that in any way allude to the banned celebration of Valentine's Day, named after a Christian saint who is said to have been martyred by the Romans in the third century.
In the Middle East kingdom, red-colored or heart-shaped gift items are legal at other times of the year, but they become contraband as February 14 nears.
Like most shops in the Saudi capital, those in Jeddah have removed all red items from their shelves, said the leader of a Migrante affiliate group based in the western Saudi city.
"Celebrating Valentine's Day is forbidden in most, if not all, Muslim countries, but our OFWs who are ?ma-abilidad? (resourceful, creative) easily find ways to circumvent the ban," said the same source who asked not to be named.
The Valentine's Day prohibition is in line with Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi school of Islam that the kingdom has followed for more than a century.
Like Valentine's Day, birthdays and Mother's Day are frowned upon by the religious establishment in the birthplace of Islam.
Although people almost never get punished for celebrating, many foreign nationals in Saudi Arabia consider this incompatible with freedom and human rights.